Bloober Team's next horror game is set across two parallel worlds, and it focuses more on unnerving storytelling than cheap scares.
Developer Bloober Team has been steadily honing its craft for compelling psychological horror games since the release of 2016's Layers of Fear. The studio followed up this release with the remarkable cyberpunk horror game Observer in 2017, and then both Layers of Fear 2 and a survival horror game set in the Blair Witch franchise in 2019. While these games were cut from a similar cloth of first-person atmospheric horror, Bloober Team's next game, The Medium, is a more cinematic turn for the developer--one that has been in the works since 2013. Releasing on PC and Xbox Series X|S as a console exclusive on January 28, The Medium is a story-driven horror experience that tells its narrative across twin parallel realities that come together in a bizarre yet still alluring fashion.
We recently had the chance to get an early look at The Medium ahead of its release and spoke with producer Jacek Zieba and lead game designer Wojciech Piejko about Bloober Team's long-gestating project. In The Medium, you play as Marianne, a psychic who has a powerful connection to the spirit world that acts as a dark mirror to our own. After learning about a tragic murder at a now-abandoned hotel, she travels to the derelict site to uncover dark secrets that reveal the truth of what happened and how her own supernatural powers are involved in the overarching mystery.
Moving away from the first-person perspective of Layers of Fear and Blair Witch, The Medium is a third-person game that uses a combination of fixed camera angles akin to survival horror classics. The game also incorporates split-screen gameplay mechanics to show off Marianne's exploration of the real world and the spirit realm. While exploring, Marianne can use her powers to interact with normal objects to uncover past connections with the long-deceased. While it looks to be a major departure from what Bloober Team has worked on, The Medium still retains that same sense of isolation and tense horror, focusing on a lone protagonist using their wits and quick-thinking to solve puzzles and overcome foes.
From my first impressions of the game in action, The Medium shares a remarkably similar vibe to Konami's Silent Hill series, particularly in its handling of atmospheric horror within mundane locations. The game's musical score is even co-composed by Akira Yamaoka, who was a composer for most of the music in the Silent Hill series. This is actually all intentional, as it turns out. According to the developers, the Silent Hills series was a significant source of inspiration for The Medium's creators, and according to them, the game is a tribute to the franchise.
"The Silent Hill series, particularly the second game, is our inspiration. Not just for The Medium, but for our company and how we create horror games. With The Medium, we see it as a love letter to the series and to Silent Hill 2," said producer Jacek Zieba.
Lead game designer Wojciech Piejko chimed in to elaborate further. "We are fans of the Japanese horror games like Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, and Forbidden Sirens. In my opinion, those are the best ones. To continue on with what Jacek said, we admire the Silent Hill series for how it doesn't quite judge you for your choices in the game, and that's something we try to present in our games. Like in Silent Hill 2, the game never judges you or explains clearly whether you made bad or good choices. That approach really resonates with us, and we applied that to the design of our games at Bloober. Layers of Fear, Observer, they are built with the same idea."
While the devs aren't shy about sharing their influences, The Medium goes beyond just being a homage. One of the game's more novel aspects is its approach to presenting both the real and spirit worlds at once. Instead of traveling between one or the other, The Medium shifts to a dual-screen view of both realms, with you being able to control Marianne across the two worlds simultaneously. Essentially, you're controlling two characters at the same time, exploring environments similar in layout but drastically different in aesthetic and atmosphere. For example, the real world's interpretation of the hotel is something akin to a haunted house, but it's a decaying vision of hell in the spirit world.
Stylistically these two realms have many differences. However, they are still connected, and actions in one area can have influences in the other. Marianne takes on a supernatural appearance in the spirit world, and she'll even interact with characters that can only be seen from that realm. The 24-style technique of the split-screen makes exploration, and even its narrative moments, feel more active, which gives it a unique energy compared to other horror games. During one moment, Marianne's spirit form is having a conversation with another character about living in an alternate reality, all the while her form in the real world goes through the motions of the discussion with no one. While this sounds odd, it comes off as a very effective and clever way to present its story across two planes of reality.
The game's dual nature comes into play during the puzzle-solving sections as well, which also introduces Marianne's other psychic abilities. While both of her forms are tethered and controlled at once, you can split up and focus your attention on one form to progress in the parallel world. Marianne can use astral projection to control her spirit form to explore places inaccessible to her real form, allowing you to progress further in the other world. While it is mostly situational, it does show off how much thought went into the level design, which I appreciated.
One side effect of traveling between worlds is that monsters can sometimes follow her back into the real world. In familiar fashion to Layers of Fear or Blair Witch, Marianne is vulnerable during these encounters with otherworldly monsters, and she'll need to evade them whenever they make their presence known. These encounters function like stealth challenges rather than combat sequences, and you'll need to hide behind cover, use distractions, or hold your breath to avoid the gaze of the spirit monsters. I found these sections unnerving, which highlighted just how vulnerable you are during these encounters.
What I found interesting about The Medium is that it focuses more on emotional storytelling rather than the simple scares and grotesque imagery. In many ways, the developers see The Medium as a culmination of the talents fostered over the years. What's particularly fascinating is that this game has been in the works for some time, and it had a significant change in perspective in the past.
"The first iteration of The Medium was actually within first-person, and being able to rotate the camera with the split-screen effect ended up inducing motion sickness, so we transitioned it over to third-person," said Piejko. "That ended up being a much more cinematic experience, which we were very happy to see. We had always planned this game to feel like a movie, as we planned the whole game out with storyboards, and it ended up giving us more control in how we can tell the story. Going back to the Observer, we had this great, emotional scene with Dan, but it wasn't easy to convey that emotion because it was in first-person. But now, we can show off all the emotional range in the game. So yeah, I think it's a great move for us going forward."
This latest look I had with The Medium showed off a lot of promise. The absence of a new Silent Hill game in recent years has left a massive void in the horror genre that not many games have managed to fill--The Medium's particular approach to psychological horror makes for a tense yet still interesting atmosphere, and I'll be keeping my eye on it. As one of the first big Xbox exclusives of 2021, it can help set the tone for the platform, especially since it's shaping up to be a clever take on the horror experience, and we'll see how far Bloober Team can take its concept for dual storytelling when it launches later this month.